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Mike Richman

Customer Care

The Journey Is the Destination

Does your culture instill a sense of empathy for your customers?

Published: Thursday, May 11, 2017 - 11:03

It’s easy to sit here aghast at the big, attention-getting customer service missteps that have recently blown up into public relation nightmares for United Airlines and American Airlines. These issues aren’t limited to airlines, however. During the past few years, companies in the automotive, life sciences, restaurant, energy, and healthcare sectors have also dealt with extremely negative PR fallout for any number of shady practices that harmed or even killed their customers.

What’s going on? Has quality at these customer-facing companies fallen so far and so fast that these humongous failures are now part of our daily lives?

The short answers are that, no, it hasn’t, and no, they aren’t. It is true, however, that these problems seem much more prevalent than ever before, just as it seems that the world is getting more violent even though there’s compelling evidence that we are living in the safest period in human history.

The reason for the disconnect between perception and reality is simply that almost everything that happens today, from a passenger being dragged off a flight, to a terrorist attack in the jungles of central Africa, is almost immediately noted, recorded, posted, tweeted, and analyzed. Our real-time communication systems make every single event bigger and more dramatic than the one before... until the one that follows. And the one that follows that.

So yes, more attention than ever before is being paid to dramatic mistakes made in customer-facing areas of various enterprises. And—stay with me here—that’s a good thing.

It’s good because it provides an opportunity, however unfortunate, for quality professionals like those in the QD audience to do their thing. Sunlight, it has been said, is the best antiseptic, and it’s as true in the realm of quality as it is in politics, finance, science, or any other human endeavor. Focused attention on an issue, especially from your customers, will expedite the remedy. The cure, in many cases, involves a heaping dose of empathy married to a vision of the customer’s journey up to that point in an interaction.

The customer journey is a trope that has come into popular use of late for those of us trying to put ourselves into the shoes of the person purchasing our products or services. It comes down to mapping out the various perceptions of pleasure, doubt, hope, and fear that motivates a customer to make—or avoid making—a particular purchase. Part of this process is an attempt to discover how your customer came to bring you her business. Did that person find you via a Google search? Word of mouth? Traditional media advertising (i.e., newspapers, TV, or radio)?

Another piece involves developing the customer persona. Is your typical customer male or female, young or old, blue collar or white collar, local or international? In all likelihood, those who support your business are a mix or all of these types, and many more. But nailing down a specific persona (and making it as detailed as possible) helps you and your customer-facing team better understand not only the concerns of your clientele, but also how your particular product or service may help address those concerns. Perhaps more important, once you have a good, solid customer persona in place, you can drill down into your business to see how your particular product or service might not help address your customers’ concerns. Consider your competitors in this, too: What are they doing differently, and better, than you?

All of this is intended to strengthen the empathy muscles that may be atrophying in your organization. Once you understand your customers’ journey and envisioned their persona, it’s difficult to continue to see those folks as mere abstractions representing profit or loss. It also helps you get out of your own narrow concerns and see things from those customers’ perspective.

The lack of this kind of empathy is, I believe, the overarching reason for the kinds of customer-service blowups that have grabbed so much attention in recent years. Even though customer-facing positions are often stressful for employees, the stress can often be ameliorated by simply seeing things from your customer’s perspective. Yes, it’s frustrating when you’re, say, a gate agent facing several angry passengers who may potentially get bumped off a flight—and that frustration is certainly a contributing factor to some of the poor decisions made in real time by some of these employees. But if you’re that agent and you take yourself and your own emotions out of the equation, you’ll be much better equipped to handle the situation in front of you in a calm manner. Focusing on your customer, and his journey to that point, is a way to achieve Zen and the art of passenger maintenance. After all, you may not particularly enjoy being yelled at by a customer, but remember the news you are delivering, and have some empathy for the lousy circumstance that is likely bringing your customer to the point of shouting. This simple change in perspective can help greatly deescalate most situations.

At every customer-facing opportunity, it helps to practice stepping outside your own little reality and putting yourself in the other guy’s shoes. Organizations that repeatedly train and emphasize this point are the ones that will find themselves building priceless brand equity through thousands of positive customer experiences. Even, and perhaps especially, bad situations can offer opportunities to demonstrate that you care about your customers and their journeys.

Empathy is not always easy, and it doesn’t come naturally for everyone, but once you and your organization master this art, you need never to again fear what your customers are saying about you on Yelp or posting about you on YouTube. You’ll be proud to have people shine a light on who you are and what you value, because what you value most of all are those very customers themselves—and you prove it, interaction by interaction, day after day.


About The Author

Mike Richman’s picture

Mike Richman


Empathy sets you on the path

Empathy sets you on the path of the customer’s journey. Your best problem solvers are your customers—if your mind is open to their input.